Monday, April 29, 2013

`To Please Those from Whom Others Learn to Be Pleased'

Much to write, and quickly. Periodically, throughout the year, assignments logjam. Newspapers taught me to perform instantaneous triage. With little deliberation I know what to write first, what can wait, what can be ignored. Why did Dr. Johnson, a professional who so often managed to write like an amateur (in the etymological sense), title his third series of periodical essays The Idler? In his life of Johnson, W. Jackson Bate explains: 

“The choice of title illustrates his decision to view these essays in a casual spirit. If a `rambler,’ compared with a `pilgrim,’ travels without `settled direction,’ an `idler’ makes no claim, either to himself or others, of traveling or doing anything at all.” 

Bate says that in many of the early essays, published between 1758 and 1760, Johnson deals with “events of the day and writes on casual subjects with attempted whimsy.” As a result, “the confirmed Johnsonian finds them thin.” True enough, but there are exceptions even among the earliest of the 103 issues of The Idler. Take No. 3, published on this date, April 29, in 1758, 255 years ago. Johnson takes on a peculiarly modern anxiety – the perennial worry that writers may someday run out of things to write about. He offers witty, scientific-sounding consolation that exceeds the limits of “attempted whimsy”: 

“I would not advise my readers to disturb themselves by contriving how they shall live without light and water. For the days of universal thirst and perpetual darkness are at a great distance. The ocean and the sun will last our time, and we may leave posterity to shift for themselves.” 

He likewise consoles those of us whose task is meeting the unceasing demand for more reading matter:

“Those who will not take the trouble to think for themselves, have always somebody that thinks for them; and the difficulty in writing is to please those from whom others learn to be pleased.”

No comments: